An Undead Sense of Place in 'Resident Evil'

by Nick Dinicola

6 February 2015

In this mansion, even when you're fine, you still feel like you’re dying.
 

Returning to Resident Evil has been an eye-opening experience. I’ve come away with a better appreciation for the game’s design and pacing, but also, unexpectedly, its writing. Resident Evil is a better written game than people remember or give it credit for. That might be an odd compliment to give a game that’s mostly remembered as a cheesy B-movie at best, what with its classic lines like, “You were almost a Jill Sandwich” and “Here’s a lockpick, it might be handy if you, the master of unlocking, take it with you.”  I’ll admit that dialogue has never been its strong suit, but I’m not talking about the dialogue. What impresses me is the text descriptions that pop up when you examine things in the game’s environments.
  

“A portrait hangs on the wall. It almost seems like it’s watching you…”
“An open journal. The pages are blank.”
“The water tank smells like something once lived in there. Perhaps someone was using it to raise some kind of creature.”
“The wall is lined with portraits. All of the faces have been painted out.”

Those are just a few of the things that you’ll examine early on while exploring the mansion, and they bring the setting to life—a shambling, rickety, dusty, depressing life. These blurbs paint the house as just another undead thing. Everything in it is old and breaking, and what’s worse is that it all seems to have broken down in its prime. Baths are drawn, but the water is still. Tables are set for dinner, but no food has been served. Generators still pump water to untended gardens. Journals remain open and filled with half sentences. It’s a truly haunted house. The past weighs heavy in every room, each one hints at better days cut short. The mansion was alive one moment and dead the next, except that it’s not quite truly dead.

The mansion is still alive, it still contains life, enough create a façade of normalcy when viewed from outside, but inside it’s being eaten away by death. The more that we play the more surreal the mansion becomes. Things seem out of order. Candles and fireplaces still burn in some rooms, yet others rooms feel like ancient tombs. This place is anachronistic but modern, an elaborate palace filled with typewriters and key locks, but also pressure plate traps and keypads. It’s as if the mansion has gone senile in its dying breaths, losing track of time of place.

The text blurbs do a good job evoking this decay because they’re so brief, and for the most part lack any flowery language or imagery. They’re straight forward and to the point, just the facts, but vague enough about those facts that they still set our imagination running. Was there a creature, other than fish, being raised in the fish tank? Are the eyes of the paintings really following me? Am I being watched? Am I being hunted? The plain language feels like it’s hiding something, turning these inconsequential objects into foreboding omens. 

There are countless other details that add to this sense of gloom, but my favorite is a stylistic touch on your inventory screen. In the original game, your health was represented by a fake heartbeat monitor. Long beeps indicated that you were fine, while fast beeps indicated that you had taken damage. Now, your health is represented by some cross between a lie detector and a heart monitor. This indicator functions the same, but now there’s a little stylus that draws the valleys and peaks of your heartbeat—and it is constantly going nuts. Even when you’re doing fine, it bounces up and down frantically, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think something horrible was happening. Yet you’re fine. Supposedly.

This mansion is dying. Everything in it is dying. Including you. You’re not okay. You can feel this as you play. Even when the halls are empty and you have a stack of ammo and a first aid spray, you’re still nervous. The camera angles, sound design, the silence, and the surrealism of the place all tease your imagination and make you anticipate horrors around every corner. You know you’re not okay. The empty halls can fill at any second, your stack of ammo can only take out two zombies, and the first aid spray is the only health item that you’ve seen in hours.

Even when you’re fine, you still feel like you’re dying.

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